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Death by Church Bureaucracy

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A former clergyman named Steve Billingsley posted this comment to the “Last Episcopalian” thread. It was so interesting I decided to give it its own post, and invite comment from readers who have seen what he has seen. Here it is:

I served for a decade as a pastor in the United Methodist Church – whose U.S. membership has declined over 30% in the last 45 years despite a very real and vibrant plurality of theologically orthodox (small “o”) members (and a booming membership in Africa and Central and South America). I served in one of the saner and more healthy regions (Central Texas) and was continually frustrated by the persistent tendency to major on minors and a denominational bureaucracy that was self-indulgent and clueless. (When I left the UMC ministry – my district superintendent told me that he (along with over half of his colleagues) was on anti-depressants and that he suspected that when he retired he wouldn’t need them anymore.)

Understand – I’m not against anti-depressant medication – it can literally be a lifesaver for folks suffering from clinical depression – but he was telling me that his job environment was so toxic that he needed to drug himself to cope (and frankly saw no irony in that fact). This is just symbolic of the denial that so many in leadership in these denominations live in. Our annual conferences were multi-day exercises in self congratulation and furrowed brow deliberation over countless resolutions that accomplished nothing other than solidify the entrenched political power of the denominational apparatchiks. Clueless old-school church politicians fighting over the remaining scraps of organizational power deluding themselves into thinking all is well.

I wouldn’t characterize it as a “liberal” vs “conservative” divide or even simply as orthodoxy vs heresy. It is taking the faith seriously enough to wrestle with serious issues in one’s own life and the life of one’s church and to trust that the faith that was delivered to us by our forebears through centuries of struggles, victories and defeats is not to be lightly cast aside for passing trends and the spirit of the age.

Fascinating. I would love to hear from pastors and church workers who have experience with the bureaucracies inside their institutions. Does what Steve Billingsley said correspond to your experience? Why or why not?

I have no experience at all with church bureaucracies, but Billingsley’s comments did bring to mind what a Catholic friend with long experience working for the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy told me back during the early days of the abuse scandal. She said that people who work for, or who have worked for, the Church were not surprised by any of it. It’s not like they knew the extent of the destruction and corruption, but rather that it did not shock them that an institution that runs like the Catholic Church does could breed an internal culture in which abuse was tolerated and perpetuated.

As I recall — my memory could be faulty — she explained that the clergy believed (consciously or unconsciously) that the Church existed for their benefit. That is, “the Church” referred to the institution; therefore, the good of the Church was, to their way of thinking, what was good for the class that managed the bureaucracy. This, by the way, was by no means confined only to the ordained. Laypeople who worked for the bureaucracy and that had absorbed the bureaucratic mindset were just as culpable.

I think this tells us little about Christianity and much about bureaucracy. People from outside the bureaucratic structure typically have no idea how much being on the inside affects the way you see things. A good friend of mine worked for a big company that, because of changing market conditions, began losing a significant amount of business. He was in management there, and told me that the leadership class within the company was truly concerned about what they could do to turn around their situation. The thing was, all their proposed solutions favored what the managerial elites wanted to do in the first place. That is, they would consider no possible measures that would mean doing something that challenged their own settled convictions, and certainly nothing that would harm their own perceived internal interests.

Result: the company continued to lose market share, and the bureaucratic managers grew increasingly anxious. It’s been years since we talked, but the main thing I recall from that conversation was that in his view, the management (again, of which he was a part) was so immersed in its own bubble that it did not understand how blinded it was by its own interests.

Don’t forget the late historian Barbara Tuchman’s elements that are present in all great and consequential institutional collapses (e.g., her account of how six Renaissance popes allowed conditions within the Catholic Church to degrade so much that the Reformation happened):

1. obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents
2. primacy of self-aggrandizement
3. illusion of invulnerable status

Again, this is not a Christian thing, specifically, but a function of bureaucratic mindsets within government, industry, academia, and all complex social entities. Being religious does not liberate you from being human. It can, though, convince you that whatever you’re doing as a leader within a religious bureaucracy must be right, because you are serving God. I’ll never forget the case in which a Catholic bishop told an adult victim of a priest’s sexual abuse — the priest was the woman’s confessor, and used information he gained in the confessional to blackmail her, a married woman, into a sexual relationship — that if she went to the authorities with this story, he, her bishop, would ruin her, “because I have to protect the people of God.” True story.

Anyway, as I said, if you work for a church bureaucracy, or have worked for one, I would love to hear your stories. Does Billingsley’s account seem right to you? If not, why not?

UPDATE: Startling comment by reader Jeff:

Denominational bureaucracy in two other “mainline Protestant” denominations I’ve worked with, the tradition in which I’m ordained and the one in which I did extensive supply preaching and consulting in, is exactly as the lead commenter described.

I respect very much Roger Talbott’s comment about the need for and the occasional positive aspects of “middle judicatory” life, but in the three Midwestern states I’ve served in as pastor and professional, all of the mainline Protestant bodies have a startlingly liberal, careerist, and I would say un-parish oriented staff cadre. There are various cynical and sarcastic explanations for how such folk end up in those jobs, but the striking thing to me is that since World War II, the denominational histories and documentation confirm what’s even more the case today: they see congregations as the problem, not a solution.

And frankly, when in personal conversation, a shocking percentage of them not only do not believe in any sort of orthodox supernaturalism (now, Reiki or homeopathy, those are big with them), I’ve had more than a couple admit “I don’t believe in God.” I (sadly) got used to my fellows in ministry not believing in the Resurrection from before seminary, but not even believing in God still leaves me breathless.

In two cases, I had the opportunity and presence of mind to say, I hope compassionately, “So why don’t you quit?” And both said the same words, years apart: “What else would I do?”

I once asked a Catholic priest friend how on earth the bishops could have done the things that they have done, re: the scandal. It just made no sense to me. He looked at me soberly and said, “I think a lot of them just don’t believe in God.”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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